Our mindsets need to change in sync with evolving technology

The plummeting costs of AI has made unimaginably powerful technology widely accessible to organizations.
The plummeting costs of AI has made unimaginably powerful technology widely accessible to organizations.


Else, like hapless generals in World War I, business leaders might be left fighting yesterday’s battle

Until the beginning of the 20th century, horses and horse-drawn carriages were the mainstay of transport in the US. Indeed, horses were instrumental in the conquest of the Wild West, becoming an integral part not just of commerce but also its folklore. Horse breeders, stable hands, carriage and saddle makers, transport businesses, public services and even armies depended on the animal. However, between 1910 and 1930, all that was upended. The advent of automobiles wiped out an equine economy that had lasted centuries. Apart from technological developments, there were other reasons for this dramatic transformation.

Vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine were faster, more powerful, reliable and efficient than horses. Plus, they did not depend on the care of live animals and associated drawbacks. Horse-drawn carriages were hand-built by craftsmen with years of bespoke experience, but Henry Ford’s assembly-line production of motor cars lowered costs, making them widely accessible. The Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 enabled the US to make heavy investments in road infrastructure, including America’s first transcontinental Lincoln Highway stretching from New York to San Francisco, connecting the two coasts. Rapid urbanization and changing lifestyles rendered the noisy, messy and unwieldy horse-drawn carriages impractical in cities. While motor cars had a less visible ecological impact, they scored over the immediate effluents of horses. And lastly, the automobile represented cultural and social freedom, modernity and progress. It was an aspirational shift.

The combined effect of these factors led to a dramatic decline in the horse and carriage industry. By the 1930s, horse-drawn transportation had become a niche, relegated to uses like tourism and agriculture.

At the cusp of an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution, there are many parallels with that paradigm shift and lessons to be learnt. Just as the internal combustion engine represented a technological leap, AI is revolutionizing industries by automating tasks for more efficiency and offering new capabilities. AI systems are already taking complex decisions and mimicking human intelligence. The plummeting costs of AI has made unimaginably powerful technology widely accessible to organizations. High-speed internet, cloud computing and data storage capabilities are modern equivalent of road infrastructure, fuelling the growth of AI. And finally, just as urbanization and new lifestyles outmoded horse-drawn carriages, evolving work environments and competitive business needs are accelerating the adoption of AI.

However, despite the obvious advantages of automobiles, antiquated mindsets, entrenched beliefs and self-serving interests delayed their widespread use. A tragic example of obsolete mindsets hindering a shift was the continued military reliance on cavalry charges during World War I. Despite the availability of automobiles, some military leaders clung to traditional mindsets ingrained over centuries, resulting in disastrous outcomes in the face of machine guns, barbed wire and modern weaponry. It took several thousand deaths for the strategic flexibility and mobility of motor vehicles to get recognition. In manufacturing, the Luddite fallacy (a belief that technology would result in job losses and economic hardship) hampered automation. Many labour unions and workers resisted its introduction. It took time for most industries to realize that technology could deliver increased production and efficiency while also creating new types of jobs.

Public services like mail delivery and law enforcement were the slowest to adopt automobiles, due to bureaucratic inertia. Post offices initially stuck with horse-drawn carriages and bicycles, believing them to be sufficient for their needs. Similarly, police departments were reluctant to replace horse-mounted officers with patrol cars, even though they needed greater speed and mobility. The shift required a change in mindset and recognition of the advantages of using automobiles for effective service delivery. Most importantly, it required the breaking of prevalent organizational satrapies whose self-interest necessitated the status quo, despite its potentially catastrophic consequences (as in the military example).

Over the past year, the advent of practically useable and accessible AI tools has blindsided many companies, regardless of size. A question that mega-corps should ask themselves is of what use is their global reach and financial might if they ‘discovered’ AI in the same timeframe as, say, a small startup tinkering with AI tools. Ironically, AI will probably be leveraged faster by smaller entities that don’t have any bureaucratic baggage or legacy to battle in their transformation journeys. Therefore, large conglomerates need to anticipate and plan on addressing the pushback that is the quintessential response of leaders and stakeholders whose interests or competence demand that the status quo be maintained. Else, like the generals of World War I, they will continue to pit flesh, blood and bone against bullets, steel and barbed wire in the vain hope that old school bravado will triumph over bleeding edge technology.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of ‘Everyman’s War’.

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